The Mahabharata war is not just an account of two armies going at one another without plan or reason. It is a carefully orchestrated sequence of moves and counter-moves.
Central to each side’s approach is the spatial arrangement in which they choose to fight on every day of the battle. These are typically described by the Sanskrit word ‘vyuha’, which means ‘plan’ or ‘strategy’.
In this post we’ll look all the vyuhas that the Pandavas and Kauravas used on each other during the course of the battle of Kurukshetra.
(For the full summary of the war, see: 18 Days of the Mahabharata War: A Day-wise Summary.)
Here is a quick and dirty list of all battle formations used in the Mahabharata war:
- Sarvatomukhi Danda Vyuha or the ‘Outward Facing’ Formation – used by the Kauravas on Day 1
- Krauncharuma Vyuha or the Crane Formation – used by the Pandavas on Day 2, and by the Kauravas on Day 6.
- Garuda Vyuha or the Eagle Formation – used by the Kauravas on Days 3 and 12.
- Ardhachandra Vyuha or the Semicircle / Crescent Formation – used by the Pandavas on Days 3, 12 and 16.
- Makara Vyuha or the Alligator Formation – used by the Kauravas on Days 5 and 16, and by the Pandavas on Day 6.
- Syena Vyuha or the Hawk Formation – used by the Pandavas on Day 5.
- Mandala Vyuha or the Circle Formation – used by the Kauravas on Day 7, and by the Pandavas on Day 9
- Vajra Vyuha or the Diamond Formation – used by the Pandavas on Days 1 and 7.
- Oormi Vyuha or the Ocean Wave Formation – used by the Kauravas on Day 8
- Sringataka Vyuha or the Horn Formation – used by the Pandavas on Day 8
- Sarvatobhadra Vyuha or the ‘Safe from all Sides’ Formation – used by the Kauravas on Day 9
- Asura Vyuha – used by the Kauravas on Day 10
- Daiva Vyuha – used by the Pandavas on Day 10
- Chakra Vyuha or the Chariot Wheel Formation – used by the Kauravas on Day 13
- Sakata Vyuha (Box Formation), Padma Vyuha (Lotus Formation) and the Soochimukha Vyuha (Needle Face Formation) – used by the Kauravas on Day 14
Sarvatomukhi Danda Vyuha
The word ‘Sarvatomukhi’ means ‘facing in all directions’ and the word ‘Danda’ means stick.
It’s a combination of a circular formation – in which six warriors space themselves around the perimeter – and a long stick-like array of soldiers that supports the circle from behind.
Imagine a mace or a club with a spherical end and a handle. The sphere is not a smooth one, however: it has metallic shards sticking out of it in all directions.
The Kauravas use this on the first day of the war, and in response the Pandavas counter with the Vajra Vyuha.
(Suggested: The Mahabharata War: What happens on Day 1?)
The Krauncharuma Vyuha takes the shape of a crane in full flight. Typically, when an army employs this, the most agile warriors are placed at the beak, the eyes and the wings.
The person that is meant to be kept safe – the king – is hidden away in the belly of the crane, with a number of supporting heroes all around him.
This is a formation equally liked by both the Pandavas and the Kauravas: the former use it on Day 2 and the latter on Day 6.
On Day 2, Arjuna is the warrior fighting at the crane’s beak so that he is the first person that the Kauravas see on the battlefield.
Right behind him, making up the head of the bird, is Drupada with a division of Panchala forces. Dhrishtadyumna takes the right wing while Nakula and Sahadeva are entrusted with manning the left wing.
(Suggested: 7 Reasons why the Mahabharata War was Fought)
On Days 3 and 12, the Kauravas arrange their forces in the shape of a great eagle named after Garuda, the son of Vinata. The foremost position in this array is the tip of the beak which is occupied by the leader: Bhishma on Day 3, Drona on Day 12.
The second and third most important positions are the two eyes of the bird, typically given to trusted atirathas that can hold their own in battle. On Day 3, for instance, these are occupied by Drona and Kritavarma.
The head and the neck are filled out by dense and thick armies that are difficult to break open: Bhishma uses the Trigartas for the head and the elephant division of Bhagadatta to form the neck.
The principle apparently is to make it so that the head and the neck are the most intricate portions of the array.
Duryodhana is stationed along with his followers at the back of the bird, out of danger.
(Suggested: The Mahabharata War: What happens on Day 3?)
The word ‘Ardhachandra’ means ‘half-moon’, so it is not clear whether this means a crescent-shaped formation or a semicircular one. For the purposes of this article, let’s assume it’s the former.
The logic behind this array appears to be that the army laid out in this shape will be able to gain breadth across the battlefield.
Such a vyuha may be advantageous for forces that are light on numbers, who can sacrifice depth in favour of span.
Typically, the two best warriors will fight on each horn of the crescent, with the middle part manned by dense forces assigned to protect the king.
On Day 3, Arjuna fights on the left horn while Bhimasena takes the right one. Yudhishthir is stationed in the middle of the formation with his division of elephants providing heft and protection.
He is also supported by Satyaki, Iravan and Ghatotkacha.
(Suggested: 7 Warriors who Survived the Mahabharata War)
While the word ‘makara’ seems to mean ‘alligator’ in the strictest sense, it is also used to describe various chimerical amphibious beasts.
This is the most favoured of all the vyuhas on our list, used three times both by the Pandavas and the Kauravas on Days 5, 6 and 16.
However, it is not clear whether all these instances describe the same shape of an alligator.
(Suggested: How many soldiers died in the Mahabharata War?)
If we accept the other broader meaning of the word Makara, the Kuru and Panchala forces may be adopting anything from an alligator, a deer, an elephant or a peacock for the head of their arrays. The tail, however, usually resembles that of a fish.
For instance, on Day 6, we’re told that the Pandavas use the Makara formation, and that Bhimasena is stationed at its beak with Dhrishtaketu and Chekitana on the right wing. Which suggests that it is not an alligator.
Like with other forward-facing formations, the eyes and the neck are the most important portions. On Day 6, Nakula and Sahadeva become the Makara’s eyes, with Abhimanyu, the Upapandavas and Ghatotkacha filling out the neck.
The Syena Vyuha is only used once, by the Pandavas on Day 5. It is the shape of a hawk, not to be confused with the Garuda Vyuha which is shaped like an eagle.
Though the two birds are similar, we must trust that the Mahabharata warriors knew enough to differentiate between them on the battlefield.
Also, while the Syena is just any other hawk, the Garuda Vyuha is not about any other eagle. It is the specific eagle Garuda that the formation mimics. So it appears that the Syena Vyuha does not have quite the same pedigree as the Garuda.
(Suggested: The Mahabharata War: What happens on Day 5?)
Bhimasena gets the beak, Shikhandi and Dhrishtadyumna become the eyes, and Satyaki leads the division that forms the bird’s eyes. Arjuna is on the neck.
It is to be noted here that Arjuna does not lead any division of the Panchala army during the Mahabharata war. He is left to be a freewheeling warrior of his own, going where he wishes, lending support and strength where it is required.
Contrast this with Bhimasena, who is usually positioned at or near the primary focal point of all arrays.
The formation that Bhishma elects for the seventh morning is called the Mandala – the shape of a mystical circle representing the universe.
In it, various divisions of the army are mixed together to create a complex pattern that is hoped to prove impenetrable. Next to every elephant are placed seven chariots.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 42: Bhishma Falls)
Next to every chariot are placed seven cavalrymen. Behind every horseman stand seven archers, and behind every archer are seven swordsmen holding shields.
There is therefore no isolation of each division, and the enemy intending to break this formation should be well-versed in all kinds of warfare.
The actual shape of the Vajra Vyuha is not described in the Mahabharata, so it is open to speculation.
Some people insist that it is a rhombus-shaped structure (the modern ‘diamond’ that we find in playing cards) intended to have a piercing effect on the enemy.
A shape such as this will be the logical counter for a circular formation that is evenly spread in terms of unit-type composition. On Day 7, Yudhishthir employs this to neutralize the threat of Bhishma’s Mandala.
(Suggested: The Mahabharata War: What happens on Day 7?)
Others say that the ‘Vajra’ is not a reference to ‘diamond’ but to the Vajrayudha of Indra. If this is true, the formation will represent the shape of Indra’s thunderbolt.
Bhimasena is at the tip, with Dhrishtadyumna, Shikhandi, Abhimanyu and Satyaki lending support from behind.
Yudhishthir is ensconced in the middle – corresponding to the hilt of the sword – with veterans like Drupada and Virata keeping him company.
The Oormi Vyuha (Kauravas, Day 8) resembles an ocean’s wave, and is favoured by Generals wishing to create a broad and shallow array, much like the Ardhachandra Vyuha.
However, the Oormi is perfect for huge armies that can wash over a battlefield like a wave. The Ardhachandra is, one surmises, suitable for smaller armies that need to stick close together.
Here the lineup of warriors is in a single rank – Bhishma, Drona, Bhagadatta, Susharma, Ashwatthama and Duryodhana make up the first line.
They’re supported by Brihadvala and Kripacharya from the second rank. It is a little surprising to see Duryodhana open to attack, but he is positioned away to one side, relatively safe.
Besides, he is also protected by Kripacharya right behind him. So at a moment’s notice, these two men can exchange positions.
Dhrishtadyumna chooses this as the counter-array for Bhishma’s Oormi Vyuha. A sringataka is a horn (perhaps a bull’s?) that seeks to maximize depth while sacrificing breadth.
This seems like a logical array to use against something like an Oormi, but of course the horn must choose its piercing point carefully. Because otherwise the wave can collapse all around it and swallow it whole.
Since the horn has only one tip, it becomes all important to load it with your best warriors.
Arjuna, Bhimasena and Satyaki – three of the Pandavas’ best – fight at the tip of the Sringataka this morning, with Yudhishthir concealed out of sight in the middle of the array, flanked by Nakula and Sahadeva.
The word ‘sarvatobhadra’ means ‘safe from all sides’. This is to be differentiated from the Sarvatomukhi, which means ‘facing in all directions’.
The Kauravas use this formation on Day 9.
Armchair military strategists like us may conclude that the Sarvatomukhi is an offensive strategy whereas the Sarvatobhadra prioritizes defense.
Kripa, Kritavarma, Saivya, Shakuni, Jayadratha and Sudakshina stay with Bhishma and the Kaurava brothers at the head of that array.
(Suggested: The Mahabharata War: What happens on Day 9?)
Drona, Bhurishrava, Shalya and Bhagadatta take up position in the right wing, whereas Ashwatthama, Somadatta and the two princes of Avanti protect the left wing.
Duryodhana, surrounded on all sides by the Trigartas, occupies a position right in the middle of the formation, inaccessible to all but the innermost ranks.
Though the actual shape of this formation is not revealed, we can guess that it is probably a square or a rectangle when seen from above.
Asura and Daiva Vyuhas
The Asura and Daiva Vyuhas are employed by the Kauravas and the Pandavas respectively on the fateful tenth day of the Mahabharata war, a day on which Bhishma is felled by Arjuna.
Little is told us about the shapes of these formations, and it appears that the names are used to convey a metaphorical truth: that here, on the tenth day, the Mahabharata war becomes a Deva-Asura war in which rules will begin to be forgotten.
Shikhandi is the warrior on the Pandava side who leads the array on this day, with Bhima and Arjuna flanking him. Bhishma continues to fight at the head of the Kaurava army, though he takes a vow that he will not fight Shikhandi.
The reason Shikhandi is chosen as the leader of the formation today is so that Bhishma can be defeated.
(In fact, the night before Day 10, the Pandavas visit Bhishma and ask him how he could be killed, and the old man advises them to use Shikhandi.)
Probably the most significant of all the formations used in the Mahabharata war, the Chakra Vyuha is employed by Drona on the thirteenth day.
Drona begins this morning by taking an oath in front of Duryodhana that he will kill at least one Pandava maharatha before sundown. In order to facilitate this, the Kauravas make a plan:
- Lure Arjuna away to a corner of the battlefield and keep him engaged there. The Trigartas – led by Susharma – take an oath to become the Samshaptakas (‘those who have vowed to conquer or die’) and perform this role.
- Create a formation that is so complex that none of the other Pandava warriors know how to penetrate it. Thus, in the absence of Arjuna, at least one great Pandava warrior can be entrapped.
This ‘complex formation’ is called the Chakra Vyuha. It is shaped like a revolving chariot wheel (or a discus) whose form and shape are constantly in flux.
(Suggested: 12 Mahabharata Stories From the Drona Parva – Part 1)
Because the shape of the formation is always changing, the path one takes to enter it cannot be used to exit it.
So the art of both entering and exiting the Chakra Vyuha is considered one of the seminal battle skills of the day, one which only three people have mastered: Krishna, Arjuna and Pradyumna.
A fourth warrior is said to have learnt half the skill – of entering the vyuha but not of exiting it. This fourth warrior is Abhimanyu.
(I must note here that the actual shape of the array is not given in the Mahabharata in any detail. Plenty of scholars have since imagined it in different ways.
Some say it’s like an ever-shifting labyrinth; others refer to a ‘blooming lotus’. Still others speculate about concentric circles [or a spiral], each revolving around its own perimeter.)
Long story short, Abhimanyu dies in the Chakra Vyuha, Arjuna takes a vow to kill Jayadratha, and the rest is history.
(Suggested: Where was Arjuna during Chakra Vyuha?)
Sakata, Padma and Soochimukha Vyuhas
On Day 14, the Kauravas wake up with one goal only: to protect Jayadratha from Arjuna.
Drona therefore embarks upon creating the ultimate defensive formation that is really three arrays laid out end to end:
- First there is he Sakata Vyuha at the front, a box-like arrangement that Drona himself guards. So Arjuna will have to defeat Drona in order to even take the first step toward killing Jayadratha.
- Next there is the Padma Vyuha, a lotus-shaped formation with large hordes of dense armies that Arjuna will have to fight through. In this part of the array you find a number of smaller warriors like Shakuni. The idea is to throw the entire quantitative force of the Kaurava army at Arjuna.
- Third is the Soochimukha Vyuha, which is a needle formation. Here the emphasis is on quality. Jayadratha is stationed right at the back, in the eye of the needle, and nine great warriors surround him, blocking access. Six of these are atirathas.
- This three-pronged formation is forty eight miles in length and twenty miles in width.
The fourteenth day of the Mahabharata war is easily the most dramatic. It follows Arjuna on his quest of killing Jayadratha, but there are a couple of sub-plots too concerning Satyaki and Bhimasena.
I have summarized this absolutely riveting day beat by beat in the Drona Parva Stories Post – Part 2.
There are four other vyuhas that have come up as part of my research for this post, but these are only mentioned in passing in the Mahabharata.
No description is given about their shape or about their strategic value. For the sake of completeness, I am including them here:
- Chandrakala Vyuha – a crescent-shaped arrangement that is similar to the Ardhachandra Vyuha
- Mala Vyuha or a ‘garland formation’ which is presumably ring-shaped
- Trishula (trident-shaped) Vyuha
- Kurma (turtle- or tortoise- shaped) Vyuha
Please note that I have not been able to find much information about these formations. If you have better luck, please let me know!
In this post we have covered all of the main battle formations used in the Mahabharata war. One final word needs to be said, though, about how accurate these are and how closely they were followed during battle.
The reason we must ask this question is that almost on every day of the battle, though the two armies begin in formation, the actual descriptions of events are free-flowing and chaotic.
Either this means that the formations are present only for dramatic storytelling value, or that the formations routinely break during the course of a day’s fighting.
So while these strategies make for excellent reading, their importance to the Mahabharata story may only be incidental.
The only exceptions to this rule – where the formation is central to the story of a given day – are Days 13 and 14, with the Chakra Vyuha and the Soochimukha Vyuha respectively.
In these two instances, especially on Day 14, one can trace the path of Arjuna and imagine him scything through Drona’s carefully laid plans.
If you liked this post, you may also like: 18 Days of the Mahabharata War: A Day-wise Summary.